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Yes, the Miami Heat Can Return to the NBA Finals if These Five Things Fall Into Place

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Amazingly enough, it's already almost time to turn your attention to what's happening down on Biscayne Boulevard, as your new-look, less-hyped Miami Heat returns a week from today, looking to prove to the world that its world does not revolve around one man.

The Heat still has the same goal -- championship or bust. Can the Heat actually contend without LeBron? Sure, if a few things fall into place.

Dwyane Wade turns back the clock to 2010.

It's been the same story since 2003: The Miami Heat will ultimately go as far as Dwyane Wade takes the team, or more specifically in the twilight of his career, his knees take him. Wade will have unquestionable motivation this season to show the world he still has a few top-of-his-game years left, and the extent to which he proves that point will determine if the Miami Heat is a true contender or just an above-average-middle-of-the-pack team.

One thing is for sure: Wade looks the part of a man who took his off-season goal of improved fitness and lightening the load on his balky knees seriously. All preseason, he's noticeably looked in better shape than he has since the 2010 season, not coincidentally the last year he seemed consistently explosive. If the Miami Heat challenges for mid-June games this season, it's because Wade has proven 32 is the new 28.

If you can't beat them, join them: Play more like the 2014 Spurs.

First things first. Nothing in the near future will come close to what Heat fans have witnessed the past four seasons. The Heat will never be as dynamic or as flashy. It just isn't realistic. What is realistic is that the team can model itself after the two teams that beat those incredibly dynamic Heat teams -- the Dallas Mavericks and, more recent, the San Antonio Spurs. That's a realistic goal, and that's something Heat players themselves have mentioned heading into the season.

On the surface that might seem crazy, but when you break down what the Spurs really are about, it's not. The Heat, one-to-12, has just as much talent as the Spurs this season. There is no reason a guy like Josh McRoberts can't be the Heat's Boris Diaw this season, if the team uses a system that puts him in the right spots to succeed.

Shabazz Napier and James Ennis must be big contributors by the playoffs.

The Miami Heat is trying to reload and rebuild at the same time, and that works only if the team can get contributions from its young talent right away. Napier and Ennis don't need to compete for rookie-of-the-year honors; they simply have to be important cogs in a well-oiled machine come the playoffs.

The rookies can provide vastly different yet equally important things for the Heat this season. Ennis can bring speed, athleticism, and three-point shooting to the Heat's bench, something the team hasn't possessed in years. Napier can bring a mashup of what Norris Cole and Mario Chalmers bring to the table, a bit of Cole's steadiness and grit mixed with Chalmers' streaky-good three-point shooting.

It's all hands on deck for the Miami Heat this year, and if the team is to contend, it'll need a few pleasant surprises along the way.

Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole must have the most consistent years of their careers.

Chalmers and Cole, at times, can both be important pieces of a championship contender, but they can also be hair-pulling frustrations. This season they must be more than complementary players: They must be difference-makers. Between Cole, Chalmers, and Napier, the Heat has enough at the point guard position to get by, but getting by won't cut it anymore -- the Heat needs them to be a strength to succeed.

In the past four years, Chalmers and Cole have benefited from the Heat being able to take some ball-handling responsibilities off their plates because LeBron controls the ball more than most guys who play his position. This year, both must create more plays than they have in the past and take care of the basketball, two things the pair have struggled with in their careers.

The Heat needs a true point guard this season. Whoever doesn't improve his game could find himself finishing the season in Sacramento or filling the James Jones role of super-athletic-cheerleader-guy for most of the season.

Chris Bosh must take his game to an All-NBA level.

Dwyane Wade's health may be key, but the team won't even be in the position for his balky knees to matter if Chris Bosh doesn't step his game up to an All-NBA level. Bosh's play and leadership must raise as much as his pay will this year if the Heat is to contend with teams with more talent in the East. If the Heat uses the Spurs model, Bosh has to become the Heat's younger Duncan. He must be up to the task of carrying a team every night.

The Heat plays its final preseason game Friday in Memphis against the Grizzlies. The regular season kicks off next Wednesday at home versus the Wizards.

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